Farewell to Papy Groove


Manu Dibango

BEST paid jazz artist in the world: Manu Dibango. Photograph by Francis Apesteguy, courtesy http://www.ktvu.com

CAMEROONIAN SAXOPHONIST, PIANIST, vibraphonist and composer, Manu Dibango, fondly known as Papy Groove, played an important role in innovating jazz in the last several decades. He was celebrated for his own brand of Afro-jazz, and cherished for his 1972 dance album Soul Makossa. He succumbed on 24 March 2020 in Paris, France, to Covid-19. He was 86.

Born Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango into a very musical Protestant household in the Cameroonian city of Douala on 12 December 1933, Dibango was the son of a man who worked as a civil servant and was a member of the Yabassi community. His mother was a fashion designer who had her own small business and led the church choir.

An only child to this couple, Dibango started his education at a village school in Cameroon. By 1941 he was accepted into a colonial school also in Cameroon, where he learned French and was exposed to art in a way that changed his thinking.

In 1949 at the age of 15, because of his academic prowess and aptitude, Dibango was sent to a school in France to study music. He started with classical piano lessons at the age of 17 and after a few years, began learning the saxophone. Both instruments ignited a huge passion inside him and while still in his teens, he joined a jazz band headed by noted Cameroonian composer and guitarist, Francis Bebey. Dibango was rapidly noticed for his talents in the local jazz community.

In 1956 he moved to the city of Brussels, in Belgium where he learned to play the vibraphone. He also expanded his stylistic vocabulary at this time, including various West African music forms.

Armed with rich experience of his early years, Dibango merged jazz with African popular traditions, creating a new music sound. He toured Europe with African Jazz, became a member of the Seminal Congolese Rumba in 1960 under the leadership of Joseph Kabasele, a Congolese musician.

He then moved back to Cameroon to establish his own band, which performed the compositions he had written. Dibango remains most well-known for his 1972 album entitled Soul Makossa, meaning “I will dance”. It was a work which ultimately marked the turning point in his career, and grew out of a song commission for the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament of that year. Jazz critic Gwen Ansell pays tribute to Dibango and the impact of Soul Makossa: “This is our modern music,” she writes. “This is Africa today.”

The song is a mixture of jazz, soul and makossa music and it filled dance floors across the globe. In 1973 Dibango toured internationally with the Fania All Stars, a popular American salsa band, and his international profile exploded onto the jazz circuit. A year later Soul Makossa was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best instrumental composition and best R&B instrumental performance.

Dibango collaborated with many musicians over the years, including Fela KutiBill LaswellLadysmith Black Mambazo, to name a few. In 1998 he created the album CubAfrica with the Cuban artist Eliades Ochoa.

Popularly known as the world’s highest paid artist, Dibango was the recipient of many prestigious awards and acknowledgements, which included being appointed the UNESCO Artist of Peace for the year in 2004, because of his intensive work and interests in the African continent. Two years later he was acknowledged for lifetime achievement by the Africa Festival in Wurzburg.

Prolific almost to the time of his death, Dibango released 44 albums during his career. He also composed music for television and films and other special events, including the memorable closing concert at the revived Brecon Jazz Festival in August 2009. In the same year Dibango sued both Michael Jackson and Rihanna for using the “Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-ssa” hook – from his 1972 hit single Soul Makossa – without his permission.

In 1990, with the assistance of Danielle Rouard, Dibango published Three Kilos of Coffee, his autobiography. The book, released when Dibango was only in his 50s, captures his remarkable rise from his birth in Douala, Cameroon, where three kilograms of coffee paid for a term in a Parisian boarding school, to his worldwide success as the first African musician to record a top 40s hit.

Other important albums released by Dibango includes Manu Dibango joue Sidney Bechet (Manu Dibango plays Sidney Bechet) is an all-jazz tribute, created by Dibango in 2007 in honour of the formative force that American saxophonist Sidney Bechet, had in his development. Vodka was one of his non-musical interests and passions: He owned a vodka brand called Pure Wonderdibango.

Dibango leaves his wife Marie-Josee (known as Coco) and children: Georgia, Marva and Michel, as well as millions of fans and supporters.

  • Elizhan Duvenage is a first year Fine Arts student at the University of Pretoria. She is part of the VIT 101 class, being taught the rudiments of arts writing by Robyn Sassen during 2020.

4 replies »

  1. Deepest sympathy to his family, friends and fans. Interesting as I know his music but didn’t know his history. Thanks Robyn and Elizhan Duvenage.

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